Paige Scott and EclecticPond boldly bringing Bronte to today’s audience

By John Lyle Belden

EclecticPond Theatre Company brushes off a dusty classic with “J. Eyre,” bringing new life to Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel “Jane Eyre” as a contemporary musical.

The style is modern, but the English countryside setting of this gothic romance remains. The actors’ clothes evoke the period rather than copy it. In fact, the style of this production – through July 30 at Grove Haus near Indy’s Fountain Square – focuses primarily on the story of relationships and the people swept up in them.

The seven actors never leave the stage, with all providing narration, singularly or in harmony, throughout. Two of them each portray a single role, Devan Mathias as Jane and Tim Hunt as Edward Rochester, while the others – Miranda Nehrig, Mary Margaret Montgomery, Abby Gilster, Chelsea Leis and Carrie Neal – chameleon from one supporting character to another.

Written and directed by Paige Scott, the musical’s story largely follows the book: Orphan Jane endures a wretched childhood, including abuse at the hands of her aunt and cousin, and the death of her only school friend (Montgomery) in a typhus outbreak. She then takes a job as governess for a girl in the care of crude, spoiled playboy Rochester. But Jane falls in love with him – realizing her feelings as he prepares to marry gold-digger Blanche (Nehrig) – and when it looks like she will finally find happiness, she finds out his terrible secret. (In case you didn’t read or don’t remember the novel from your literature classes, I’ll leave it there.)

The sung narrative interludes between scenes aid the flow of the story without interrupting it, and relieves one of the need to have read it beforehand to understand its events. Scott’s songs feel like they’ve always been a part of this classic, rather than freshly written. Her captivating adaptation of the novel suggests the script for an autumn Oscar-bait movie. Add in excellent performances by the cast and keyboard accompanist Jacob Stensberg, and this is the kind of show that, if presented Off-Broadway, would soon find itself under the big lights.

You can find “J. Eyre” at 1001 Hosbrook Street; and tickets and info at eclecticpond.org.

IndyFringe: Drankspeare

By John Lyle Belden

Just the concept is enough to drive ticket sales: Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” done as a comedy and a drinking game — with the cast drinking as well.

The actors got started on their cans of local Sun King brew even before all the audience were seated. Then, whenever a couplet rhymed, someone would shout, “Drink!” And all did.

It’s a credit to the Eclectic Pond players that they are so fully familiar with the Bard that they mostly remembered the lines of the play, and even went off-script in Shakespearean style — with a few modern idioms thrown in for comic effect.

The show even ends in the manner of a Shakespearean comedy.

Fortunately, the ComedySportz venue has plenty of drinks (with and without alcohol) for the crowd to play along. Whether or not you wet your whistle, this hilarious show is a must-see. Remaining performances are Friday and Saturday, Aug. 26-27, both at 6 p.m. Get info and tickets at indyfringefestival.com.

It’s Shakespeare, but it’s fun – really!

By John Lyle Belden

Fans of William Shakespeare need only be told that Indy’s Eclectic Pond Theatre Company has staged “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with one weekend remaining at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair in downtown Indianapolis.

Those less familiar with the Bard, casual fans, or those who think of him in the context of dramas like “Hamlet,” might also find this production a surprising treat.

In the modern tradition of putting the old plays in new settings, the “Athens” of ETC’s “Dream” is located in the world of a 1960s teen beach movie. The fairy folk have Polynesian-inspired garb, while our human characters are in hip threads for a California summer.

Though Shakespeare comedies typically overwhelm the viewer with their multitudes of characters, this play keeps the groupings simple, and, under the direction of Zach Neiditch, easy to follow.

Athenian nobles Theseus (Jay Hemphill) and Hippolyta (Carrie Fedor) are soon to marry. It will also be the wedding of young Hermia (Betsy Norton), but she wishes to wed Lysander (Ethan Mathias) rather than Demetrius (Matt Walls), to whom she has been promised. Hermia’s bestie Helena (Andrea Heiden) wants Demetrius, who isn’t interested. Lysander and Hermia head into the forest during the night, seeking to elope. Helena tells Demetrius, and they follow.

Meanwhile, a group of local artisans – the “mechanicals” – are in the same forest, secretly rehearsing a play they hope to present at the wedding. They are led by Quince (Marcy Thornsberry) who has a hard time containing the boisterous ego of her star, Bottom (Tristan Ross).

And also meanwhile, fairy royalty Oberon and Titania (Hemphill and Fedor) have a disagreement. She storms off, and he decides to have some mischief at her expense – which impish Puck (Sarah Hoffman) is all to eager to provide. Oh, and while she’s at it, she could also make a couple of the mortals wandering the woods fall in love as well.

What follows, of course, are transformations and confusion for the characters, but – despite the Elizabethan language – an easily understandable and hilarious twisting path towards the inevitable happy endings. The production even concludes with the Mechanicals’ play within the play, wherein Ross over-acts to wonderful effect.

As usual, we end with Puck’s apology, but it is hardly needed. This “Dream” is a joy for everyone from the energetic cast to the audience surrounding the IndyFringe stage. Get info at www.eclecticpond.org and tickets at www.indyfringe.org.

Review also posted at The Word.

Review: The price of defying godlike power

By John Lyle Belden

In the hands of Eclectic Pond Theatre Company, one of Western civilization’s oldest surviving plays truly becomes timeless.

“Prometheus Bound,” attributed to ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, was based on the myth of the Titan who defied the ruling god Zeus and brought fire – and with it, civilizing knowledge – to humankind. For his “crime,” Prometheus was chained to a rock and subjected to daily torture. In the play, he is visited by characters who ask him why he committed the act and to beg for forgiveness.

In the ETC production, playing Friday through Sunday at Wheeler Arts Community Center, Prometheus is the online name of a hacker (played by Bradford Reilly) who worked for the NSA and its director – nicknamed “Zeus,” of course – to develop the all-knowing Firenet. Acting similarly to real-world fugitive Edward Snowden, the online titan makes the secret program public – giving “Fire” to mankind.

He is shackled by Hephaestus (Tristan Ross) and Kratos (Taylor Cox), now represented by the prison warden and guard. The Chorus who questions Prometheus and listens to his soliloquies is a TV reporter played by Ann Marie Elliott. Oceanus, the fellow Titan who begs the prisoner to reconcile with Zeus, is in 2016 his attorney, played by Ross. Cox also takes a second role as Hermes, Zeus’ messenger.

Prometheus also encounters Io (Elysia Rohm), a woman whom Zeus lusted after. In mythology, she was turned into a cow, today she is only called one as an epithet, and is disappeared to a neighboring prison cell.

The classic translation of the Greek drama is kept intact, so to be understandable we must take myth as metaphor, but Reilly manages to communicate well his disdain for a tyrant of any era. Ross, Cox and Elliott, all experienced with Shakespearean dialogue in a modern setting, have no trouble with this material either. I first thought that Elliott in her role smiled a bit much for such serious subject matter, but it works as a portrayal of the cynical nature of today’s media – addressing world-changing news with an incredulous grin. Rohm is effective in making us feel Io’s plight – whether as the maiden pursued by an amorous god, or an inconvenient affair that a man in power can’t let walk free.

To better understand the story and put it in a relatable context, there are several well-produced broadcast news breaks shown on a screen to the side of the simple set of Prometheus’s cell. These were helpful and fit right in with the whole concept of the play.

Director Carey Shea and company have produced an excellent fresh take on an old story, a commentary on the “gods” we may all find ourselves answering to. Find Wheeler Arts at 1035 Sanders St., Indianapolis, near Fountain Square. For information and tickets, see eclecticpond.org.

(Also posted at The Word)